By Roger Meissen | Bond LSC
Kristal Gant is a long way from the student she was when she donned a lab coat and wielded a pipette in labs at Bond Life Sciences Center nearly four years ago.
As she stood in front of a group of MU students hoping to one day follow their own routes to graduate school, Gant recounted her long and winding path to her Ph.D. program at University of Wisconsin-Madison and how MU’s Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) Scholars helped her get there.
“I’m really passionate about wanting to give back and be kind of like a mentor, but also a motivational, navigational tool for these students,” Gant said. “In undergrad, I didn’t have any idea about research and I feel like it’s my duty to come back and talk about my experience. Most of these students have not seen people that look like them in graduate school, as Ph.D. candidates or doctors. They don’t even know that’s possible for themselves.”
Gant didn’t attend Mizzou for her undergraduate degree, but as a PREP Scholar here she gained the chance to hone her skills. It gives underrepresented groups opportunities for individual academic and professional development that range from mentoring and GRE preparation to mini courses and research experience. The end goal is to prepare them for applying to Ph.D. programs. Those in PREP spend one or two years refining their skills and knowledge.
Gant greatly expanded her experience in research during that time. She spent a year alternating between the labs of Cheryl Rosenfeld and Mike Roberts in Bond LSC, learning the ins and outs of research on reproduction and environmental chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA).
“It gave me a preview of what you go through in your first year of grad school. I knew I wanted to study reproduction, reproductive deficiency and disease, and was also interested in environmental and reproductive toxicology, initially,” Gant said. “When I came here, I had the best of both worlds; I had the BPA aspect with Dr. Rosenfeld looking at mouse models and how that affected their behaviors and I had the reproduction area where Dr. Roberts looks at placental development by converting embryonic stem cells to trophoblasts, the main cells responsible for placental function. The project was essentially perfect in accommodating both of my interests.”
Gant had a unique, sometimes turbulent path to her interest in science. She grew up and went to school on the Westbank of New Orleans, until ninth grade. She remembers first getting an interest in science in junior high when her teacher showed a time-lapse video about pregnancy and the development of a baby.
“I was really interested in like how the woman’s body knew to accommodate the baby and how it adapted to having another human inside of it. That really intrigued me, so I was like, ‘I want to do reproduction,’” Gant said. “That combined with “The Cosby Show” made me want to be a neonatal nurse or obstetrician. I pursued that initially, but then I was like, oh, whoa, I didn’t know you could actually research these things, and I was introduced to research careers and grad school in college and realized this could be a thing. So, yeah, I’m a nerd like that.”
Before she got there, life got a little derailed. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the 15-year-old girl got separated from her mother who was visiting her sister in Virginia, causing her to have to relocate to Texas with a family friend to avoid the storm. What started out as a few days of inconvenience quickly turned into a bigger situation.
“We saw on the news that there was extensive flooding and people were stuck on the roads, and our apartment was flooded out, so we lost everything,” Gant said. “My mom didn’t know if I had made it out or anything because the phone lines were down and we were separated two weeks before the family I was staying with in Texas flew me to Virginia where I ended up finishing high school.”
Gant completed a year of college at Virginia Commonwealth University before she moved to North Carolina to help her mother escape a domestic violence situation. They were left living in a shelter for abused women and children for a year before getting their own apartment, and Gant worked at McDonalds until she started college again at Elizabeth City State University. She graduated in 2014 and followed up with a couple internships before ending up in a customer service job.
“And I hated it because it was, like, I have a whole degree that I’m doing nothing with and I’m in debt from it and I need to do something with,” she said.
A former adviser recommended Gant apply for PREP Scholars to improve her chances of getting into grad school.
Gant said her struggles helped her figure out what she wanted to do and shaped how she saw her future. Understanding it also aided her in writing personal statements for graduate school applications. She related that insight to those current PREP students looking to her for advice.
“It requires a lot of self-reflection to understand how your struggle got you to where you are. It doesn’t have to be family or a natural disaster or relationship troubles or whatever. It could be something within you that you yourself struggle with internally, whether it be confidence or fear or a feeling of not being good enough to do something,” Gant said. “It could be something so small that you struggled with, overcame and still, you pursued something you were deathly afraid to do. That shows that no matter what is supposed to stop you, you’re not gonna allow it.”
But her parting advice was some of the best.
“It really takes a passion, knowing what you’re trying to answer and putting in the work to figure it out. If you’re not passionate then you will be miserable and feel like you’re trapped in a prison,” she said. “But if you want the answers to your research questions and will not rest until you figure it out, then you should be in graduate school.”
Kristal Gant is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Endocrinology and Reproductive Physiology in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She was an MU PREP Scholar in 2015 and plans to graduate with her doctorate in 2021.
Learn more about the PREP Scholars program at prepscholars.missouri.edu.